A worker training program has nothing to do with workers. That is only one of the puzzling conclusions drawn by a conservative commentator about a federal grant program.
Followers of my work know that I was recently awarded a Susan Harwood Training Grant from OSHA to develop training materials for safe handling of nanomaterials in the workplace. I just returned from the mandatory grantees orientation meeting in Washington, DC., where, in addition to getting better acquainted with the Region 6 OSHA folks who will be administering my grant out of Dallas, TX, I got to learn better about the goals and objectives of the SH program, get answers to very specific program and financial questions early in the grant year and mix it up with my fellow grantees.
The main meeting started off with the standard introductory remarks by higher-ups at OSHA and its parent organization, the U.S. Department of Labor. Typical opening statements delivered by VIPs are often big on motivation and boilerplate mission-and-vision stuff and short on content or controversy. So imagine my surprise when Dr. Hank Payne, director of the Directorate of Training and Education, warned us that the grants we had just been awarded could be subject to greater scrutiny than in previous years due to shifting political winds.
It’s no surprise that the new Congress could bring with it a tougher climate for all types of federal grants, as House Republicans look to make good on their campaign promises of fiscal responsibility and elimination of wasteful government spending. We’ve all seen those exposés of allegedly outrageous federal grants—$3 million to study fish sex! $1.5 million to prove that caffeine makes you more alert!—and now there’s even a website where you can enter the grant number of a National Science Foundation grant that you believe is a waste of taxpayer money. [Tip: If you don't want your grant to be targeted avoid using these keywords: success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus. I think I'm OK.] But it was news to me when Dr. Payne informed us that the humble Susan Harwood program, which doled out a grand total of $10.75 million to 61 organizations, had attracted the attention of no less than Rush Limbaugh.
On September 10, 2010, Limbaugh devoted some time on his show to excoriating the Susan Harwood Capacity Building grants which are given to organizations that are either new to worker training or want to build a bigger capacity to train workers in a particular area. (I was funded through the Susan Harwood “Targeted Topics” program announced a couple weeks later; the programs are very similar.) He read from the list of grants:
There are three pages of them here. The Alliance of Forest Workers and Harvesters in Albany, 85 grand. Casa Latina, Seattle, 85 grand. The Center for Human Services in Bethesda, Maryland, 85 grand. Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, California, 85 grand. Now, stick with me on this. Farm Worker Legal Services of New York in Rochester, 85 grand. Hispanic Resource Center of Larchmont & Mamaroneck in New York, 85 grand. Lake-Sumter Community College, the grantee will assess worker needs and develop a training program on safe patient handling and movement practices for student nurses and health care providers in a three-county area in Florida, 85 grand…
And so on. Finally he gets to his main point.
Now, what does all this add up to? Ladies and gentlemen, this is your tax dollars. This is your tax dollars, and it’s all being parceled out by this administration behind the scenes. Nobody knows anything about it. You don’t know anything about it.
This whole program is cloaked in secrecy, despite the fact that he was reading from a public website. Despite the fact that the grant application announcement, which includes a detailed, quantitative rubric for scoring the grants, is published in the Federal Register months in advance. Despite the fact that I confirmed the news of my own grant when I read the OSHA press release on the Targeted Topics grants, which actually preceded their formal letter to my institution. He goes on:
This is nothing more than vote buying. This is simple redistribution of wealth. It’s coming from OSHA. Nobody ever votes on any of this stuff. These are not even earmarks. This is just the administration passing out goodies, and it’s all your money, it’s all our money.
What is he saying, all federal grants should be voted on by the American public? Earmarks are better than competitive grants? This is a typical competitive grant process: solicitation is announced, applications are received and reviewed, awards are made.There’s way less secrecy in this process than in the earmark process, despite efforts by plenty of people to shine a brighter light on pork.
What does any of this have to do with the middle class, with working people or other titles given to Americans by the government?
I’m at a loss to fathom what’s he’s getting at here. The nursing students he cites above, who are going to learn better methods for lifting heavy patients so they don’t throw out their backs, aren’t part of the future middle class? Is he really questioning what a worker safety training program has to do with working people?
His thesis seems to be that since many of the grants were awarded to labor unions, universities and small community-based organizations the whole program is part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to redistribute wealth to illegal immigrants and political cronies. OK, he has a problem with labor unions and groups that serve Spanish-speaking worker populations, which tilt toward voting for Democrats. No big surprise. But this really got me.
They want to get their hands on the public Treasury… This is how they’re supporting themselves. They’re not doing any work. They’re just siphoning off the work we all do, and now we don’t have the money to pay ‘em any of this.
I’m not sure if “they” are the left, the Department of Labor, or the grantees. I know it’s not the latter because after sitting through the OSHA orientation, I know I’m going to have to work my butt off and justify every single nickel spent on my program. The amount of scrutiny we will be under to meet our quarterly projections on a $236,000 project surpasses the oversight to which the National Science Foundation subjects our multi-million dollar research center. It may ease Mr. Limbaugh’s mind to learn that during a meeting lasting a day and a half, neither a single doughnut nor cup of coffee was served to attendees. Though I did receive from my Region 6 contact a modest bit of OSHA swag.
If my team does its job right, at the end of our grant employers and workers will have a better understanding of how to maintain safe workplaces as they advance U.S. global competitiveness in one of the hottest emerging technology areas of the past decade. And that’s good news for honest, hard-working Americans of all ideologies.